#CriterionMonth A Portrait of an Artist: Identity and Authenticity in Inside Llewyn Davis

Artwork by Laurel Delany

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The allusions to death in the opening song of Inside Llewyn Davis—hanging by a noose or lying in an open grave—indicate the dark state of Llewyn’s mind. His best friend and musical partner Mike Timlin recently committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge (even though, as Roland insists, “You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally”). After losing his better half, Llewyn undergoes an identity crisis—desperately needing to find himself as both an artist and a man. The Coen brothers indicate this theme of selfhood with the frequent confusion of Llewyn’s name (Lou N. Davis, “Llewyn is the cat”, etc.). Nobody knows who Llewyn Davis is, least of all himself.

The only thing Llewyn is sure of is his love (and sometimes hate) of folk music. His desire to succeed in the New York City folk scene is so great that he is willing to starve and hop couches day and night. Music means absolutely everything to Llewyn, so much so that he views any life without some sort of artistic purpose as void of any meaning. He disdains his sister’s quiet suburban life with her son and chastises Jean’s picket-fence dreams as careerist, square, and sad. For Llewyn, life is futile unless you have some sort of creative talent to dedicate yourself to. However, Llewyn comes close—not only once, but twice— to following that fearful path. Not only is Jean about to abort what may be his child, but Llewyn discovers that his former girlfriend Diane did not have an abortion as he was led to believe. During the mid-movie road trip, Llewyn passes by the town where she lives; inside one of the tiny, blinking lights his two-year-old son or daughter toddles. But Llewyn is far too preoccupied with his lofty folk singer fantasies to ever commit himself to the difficult realities of raising a child, or even acknowledge that he has one. He passes by Diane’s Akron home because the role of father is one he is in no way willing—or ready—to play; it would distract him from resuscitating his floundering career. Llewyn’s reluctant foray into solo work, an album with the film’s title Inside Llewyn Davis, is not selling well at all, causing him to wonder whether or not he has what it takes to become a working musician.

Part of what prevents Llewyn from getting ahead is his cold, inscrutable demeanor, egotism, and envy of others. Worn down by his hardscrabble life, Llewyn shields himself emotionally from others both on stage and off. He guards his vulnerability and despair with sardonic and bitter humor about his lack of success. The vitriol and bleak existential gloom that hovers over Llewyn prevents audiences and friends from connecting with and seeing inside of him, hence the irony of his solo album’s title. Oscar Isaac’s layered performance hints towards the wellspring of profound grief and depression that lies beneath such orneriness.

Llewyn loathes the achievements of his fellow folk singers, but what he fails to realize is that part of their success lies in their individual charm and eccentricity. He resents Troy Nelson, an earnest and sickeningly genteel solider and country bumpkin, for obtaining representation from the revered Bud Grossman. He scoffs at Al Cody’s quirky vocalizations during their “Please, Mr. Kennedy” session, even though their career is in the same position: both have a stack of unsold records hidden beneath their end tables. Finally, he harasses the Irish quartet and the homespun and homely Elizabeth Hobby at The Gaslight as they perform rustic songs that closely reflect the reality of their lives. What separates Llewyn from these artists is their willingness to own their uniqueness and be their true selves without shame. Llewyn is far too afraid to stand on his own without Mike and unsure if he is even capable. And when he is in the spotlight, what do we see? Just a churlish young man with a huge chip on his shoulder. After enjoying moderate success with his friend by his side, Llewyn lashes out when things don’t go his way solo. He still needs to find his own voice.

Folk is one of the most authentic musical genres with a long and storied history borne from those suffering in economic squalor from America’s bloodied cotton fields to suffocating mines. Even though Llewyn acidly declares that he fucking hates folk music, he still views performing them as something sacred. That is why he disdains being treated like a trained monkey who can recite his songs on command at dinner tables for fancy college professors. It also frustrates him when fellow artists like Jim find success with cheesy bubblegum pop that has no grit or spirit but will make a killing in royalties. Llewyn is not willing to sacrifice his integrity on such film flam; he is willing to persevere through his vagabond life if it means he is able to sing the venerable songs he values.

During a coveted audition spot for Bud Grossman, Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane.” The haunting images of childbirth reference Llewyn’s own fraught relationship with parenthood. Llewyn uses this somber and tender ballad to grapple with his own complex feelings about Diane and his son or daughter, and the child inside Jean’s womb that is possibly his. He looks deep into the eyes of Bud Grossman as he sings, as if this singular audience can offer him all the answers he’s seeking. Despite pouring his heart into the performance and emotionally identifying with the king’s pain, somehow it still doesn’t communicate. Grossman encourages him to join a trio à la Peter, Paul, and Mary. That is what will earn him success, not grim ballads about queens perishing in childbirth. Unlike Troy Nelson, Llewyn just doesn’t connect with people. Is he only able to be authentic when one half of a whole? Is it too difficult to shed his hardened demeanor when alone onstage? Does he even have the ability to stand on his own as an artist? Llewyn may be more commercially viable or a better performer when part of a group, but he does not want to sacrifice his artistic goals for monetary gains.

Llewyn’s reformulation of Timlin & Davis’ hit song “Fare Thee Well” into a riveting and heart-wrenching solo proves he can shine on his own, but he is quickly usurped by a young Bob Dylan. Dylan’s distinctive nasally voice, ardent performance style, and similar song “Farewell” leaves Llewyn quickly forgotten. The Möbius strip ending suggests that Llewyn’s journey towards selfhood is perpetually in motion. Without his musical partner, Llewyn is left to wander the streets of New York City clutching the remains of a withering dream. Audiences are quite used to seeing him as part of a mildly successful duo and it is difficult to break free from that symbiotic identity, hence the growth of his beard. Perhaps when Mike was living Llewyn dreamed of going solo but never had the courage, and now he resents not having him to fall back on after his imminent failure. In the Timlin & Davis duo, Mike may have been the one who brought the charm while Llewyn played Straight Man. Now Llewyn has no idea what his role is, and he is far too swallowed up by bitterness and depression to figure it out. But no matter what dynamic he and Mike had, it is clear is that their relationship, both on stage and off, was the one thing holding Llewyn’s broken pieces together. For now, there is nothing inside Llewyn Davis but uncertainty, glowering, and an insatiable hunger for the artistic life he dreams of, even when the universe seems intent on telling him no.


You can view Inside Llewyn Davis on Criterion here.


By Caroline Madden

Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and her writing also appears on Fandor, Reverse Shot, IndieWire, and Vague Visages. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins

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